Continued from part one.
This article falls into the film diaries because historically, there have been many attempts to make cheaper versions of popular cameras – the M2, for instance, is supposed to be a cut-price and simplified version of the M3; the Nikkomats are another example. Yet none of these feel particularly poorly made or roughly finished; if anything, they still considerably exceed the perceived quality level of anything currently available new. Objectively speaking, my 1995 Hasselblad 501C is a pain to use: it’s large, heavy, only carries 12 shots, has serious mirror slap, has a reversed finder, requires a separate external meter (or very good eye), is a pain to reload, slow to shoot with, and an ergonomic disaster – yet somehow I just love making images with it because of the way it feels in the hand. The lens’ aperture and shutter rings move with distinct, clean clicks. The mirror and shutter sound feels positive and deep. The accessories detach and snap into place with solid, positive clicks and zero free play; there are no rough-feeling mechanical parts or actions, and the focusing rings (mostly) have precisely the right amount of damping.
Of more relevance to the reader is that these cameras are available today, often in excellent condition – sometimes hardly used – for not very much money at all. Total cost for the Hasselblad (which is in near-new condition, by the way), with two lenses? Less than a D600 body. And it’s capable of equally good image quality, with the appropriate film loaded. I’m almost sure that the ‘blad will be working just fine – so long as you can still buy 120 film – in another 20 years; I’m just as sure the D600 won’t be. Move up the scale a bit, and you start to get into the more rarefied (at least on price) realm of Rolleiflexes, SWCs, Leica MPs and Nikon F2 Titans; these are at least as well built, and equally solid. The internals of these things are as finely adjusted (though not as well finished cosmetically) as a good mechanical watch. My F2T dates from 1979; it’s been well taken care of – but used – and still looks and functions as new. I’ve got a Rolleiflex on loan from a friend, too – that feels like you could hammer tent pegs with it, or perhaps use it as a chock for a tank on a particularly steep hill. And it would still continue working afterwards. Is it any wonder that whilst modern digital equipment has similar retained value to subprime bonds, film gear seems to have plateaued – or even risen slightly in recent times?
It’s not all bad news, however: it’s clear there’s still a difference between the tactile quality of say a D4 and a D3200. Yet, since we passed the point of sufficiency for most users already – older pro bodies now become a viable option. Used D3s are hovering around the US$2,500 mark; which is not much more than a new D600. (I know which I’d rather have.) Similarly, the premium compacts drop in value like stones; a Ricoh GR-Digital III is a great camera and available around the US$300 mark. Interestingly, Ricoh are one of the few companies that understand the importance of feel: even the buttons on the GR-Digital have a stiffer click and deeper travel than most normal compacts, which helps contribute to the impression of solidity and ‘positiveness’.
It seems that photographers fall roughly into two camps these days – those who care about feel, and those who don’t. Often, the latter simply don’t know any better because they’ve never had the opportunity to handle some really solid equipment, which is a shame, considering how much more accessible say a regular F2 is now than when it was first launched. Even more interesting is that a lot of the former vitriol-throwers change their minds after handling the Hasselblad Lunar in the flesh; it’s clear that the designer (re-designer?) understood the importance of tactility – even if we might disagree with some of the aesthetic choices, and the price point.
The bottom line is that it’s good to have options, even if you might not personally use those options. If there’s enough negative reaction to experimentation or premium products that focus on improved tactility instead of improved functionality – eventually we may well see these options disappear, or be severely restricted. Similarly, the obsession over spec sheets has to end; I’d definitely appreciate perfect button placement or sensible custom functions more than an extra boost of ISO to 512,000 or wherever the current ceiling is now. I can’t help but feel that more effort was spent on things like that in the film era (since the image quality playing field was fairly level) that now; though hopefully this will change in the near future. Camera manufacturers are going to have to start differentiating their product in new ways in order to continue to survive and grow as the markets reach saturation or become jaded; I know I’m definitely yawning a lot more over new camera releases these days. In the meantime, if you haven’t had the pleasure of handling a good film camera – you don’t know what you’re missing; hunt one down even if you don’t plan to shoot with it – some make worthwhile investments, or at worst, have reached price plateaus and are unlikely to devalue any further. At very least, they’re fantastic objects just to handle and display. In some ways, perhaps we don’t care about the result as much; it’s as much about enjoying the shooting experience as the images produced. Now, I’m going to see if I can find a 903 SWC…MT
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